By Sophia Yin, DVM, May 17, 2009
As Dog Bite Prevention week is being recognized across the United States, experts agree that one of the contributing factors to the 4.7 million dog bites that occur each year may be owners mimicking what they see on T.V.
Dr. Jennie Jamtgaard, an applied animal behavior consultant and behavior instructor at Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine gives an example:
“I saw an Australian Cattle Dog mix with severe aggression (lunging, growling, barking) directed at other dogs whenever they came into view, even hundreds of feet away. The dog was fine with people and had never been aggressive to people before. The owners watched the Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan regularly and dealt with the dog in a completely punishment-based way. They repeatedly tried to physically subdue the dog whenever it was aggressive. Finally, at PetSmart, the dog growled and lunged, and when the female owner tried to force the dog down, she was bitten on the arm. That was when they called me.”
Dr. Kathy Meyer, president of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB), describes a case she saw.
“Last year I consulted with an owner who was having trouble with his Shar Pei becoming aggressive toward the dog walker when on walks. The owner had no trouble with his dog on-lead outdoors, but the walker complained of escalating aggression. Upon further discussion, it was discovered that the walker claimed he was utilizing some methods demonstrated by Cesar Millan on the Dog Whisperer. Instead of walking the dog on a loose lead, he would place a choke collar high up on the dog’s neck, where it is the most painful and can shut off the airway. When the dog didn’t respond to a command, he would punish the dog by tightening the collar, even lifting the dog’s front feet off of the ground. As the punishment escalated, the dog began to growl, snarl, and snap at the walker. The walker even began to take a tennis racket on walks to try to subdue the dog when he became aggressive, a technique he saw on Millan’s televised show. My advice was simple. Find another dog walker who knew how to calmly walk the dog on a loose lead and did not try to intimidate him. A new walker was introduced and the dog continues to do well, with no aggression on walks.”
Dr. John Ciribassi, past-president of the AVSAB, explains why punishment can cause aggression.
“A typical scenario is a client with a 3 year old dog who has presented because of aggression directed at strangers that the dog meets either on walks or when guests come to the home. Initially the dog barks at people as they pass and backs away if approached, indicating that the aggression is due to fear. The owner is referred to a trainer or watches a show that demonstrates the use of choke chain or pinch collar and verbal or physical corrections. Because the dog now feels pain when it encounters the person it fears, the aggression escalates. As a result, now the dog lunges, snaps, and bites in situations where it used to bark and back away. In some cases the dog is so aroused it learns to redirect its aggression towards humans.”
Bite Incidences Come as No Surprise
Unfortunately, these bite incidences are not surprising. According to a recent veterinary study published in The Journal of Applied Animal Behavior (2009), if you’re aggressive to your dog, your dog will be aggressive, too.
Says Meghan Herron, DVM, lead author of the study, “Our study demonstrated that many confrontational training methods, whether staring down dogs, striking them, or intimidating them with physical manipulation such as alpha rolls [holding dogs on their back], do little to correct improper behavior and can elicit aggressive responses.”
These techniques are pervasive in many T.V. shows and some popular books. For instance, The Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan routinely uses alpha rolls, dominance downs, and forced exposure to things that cause fear or aggression, and has depicted Millan restraining dogs or performing physical corrections in order to take valued possessions away from them.
And like their previous bestselling books, Divine Canine by the Monks of New Skete focuses on correcting bad behaviors using choke chain and pinch collar corrections rather than proven non-aversive techniques.
These sources attribute undesirable or aggressive behavior in dogs to the dog’s striving to gain social dominance or to a lack of dominance displayed by the owner. Advocates of this theory therefore suggest owners establish an “alpha” or pack-leader role.
But according to the AVSAB position statement on The Use of Dominance Theory in Animal Behavior Modification, undesirable behaviors are most frequently due to inadvertent rewarding of undesirable behaviors and lack of consistent rewarding of desirable behaviors.
Herron adds, “Studies on canine aggression in the last decade have shown that canine aggression and other behavior problems are more frequently a result of fear (self-defense) or underlying anxiety problems. Aversive techniques can elicit an aggressive response in dogs because they can increase the fear and arousal in the dog, especially in those that are already defensive.” Indeed the AVSAB position statement and guidelines on the Use of Punishment in Animal Behavior Modification backs her up.
What Methods Can Be Used Instead?
Says E. Kathy Meyer, AVSAB president, ” Behavior modification and training should focus on the scientifically sound approach of reinforcing desirable behaviors such as focusing on the owner and removing rewards for undesirable behaviors.”
She emphasizes that modification also involves changing the dog’s underlying emotional state. This combination of scientifically proven non-confrontational techniques works well for aggressive dogs. (See video 1 and video 2.)
So what about the Australian Cattle Dog we met at the beginning of this post?
Says Jamtgaard about her case, “The Australian Cattle Dog improved dramatically at our consultation, being calm during situations the owners had never witnessed before, such as the neighbor dogs barking at her only a few feet away. I think seeing what just a few minutes of work could accomplish by changing approach gave them the hope that it could work.
Within 4-6 weeks they began to be able to go on normal walks with her, with dogs at normal distances. They feel so good that they can treat her differently (more kindly). The owner now competes with her dog in weight-pulling contests and can be in close contact with other dogs they meet during contests and on the street, whereas before, the dog was reactive from over a hundred feet.”